The Samodiva

24 Feb

A thick, impenetrable fog fell one autumn night over central Skopje. The narrow streets and alleys of the Macedonian capital’s Old Bazaar were mostly empty of shoppers or tourists. The high hexagonal clocktower close to Sultan Murad Mosque seemed to have vanished from human sight. At the center of the Old Bazaar, only a pair of newly-weds were passing by the Cifte Hamam, the remains of the Turkish double bath with its male and female wings.

Only four individuals happened to catch sight of the unusual tall figure wandering through the opaqueness of the fog. It appeared to be a woman dressed in a gleaming white cloak. There was a ghostlike quality, strange and undefined, about the unexpected vision at this late hour when most shops and businesses ha closed.

What was it that the four saw? Not one of them was certain enough to be able to say.

Dr. Biljana Manuseva was happier in private practice than she had been at the University Clinic of Psychiatry, where she had for several years headed the Department for Affective Disorders.

Her office on Samoilova St., near the grand stone bridge that crosses the Vardar to the Old Bazaar, was conveniently near the apartment where she lived by herself.

Most patients who came to her for psychotherapy were referred by general physicians, but there were exceptions. One of these was Stojna Vasilevska, a young woman who came in seeking help on her own. She entered the outer office as the psychiatrist, done with her appointments was about to leave for home.

“Yes, can I help you?” inquired Biljana.

The tall, slender figure approached the doctor. “I must talk with someone. My situation has become an extremely dangerous one, I’m afraid.”

It was evident at once to the therapist that here was a highly disturbed person. Her face was haggard and her hands appeared to be trembling a little.

“Do you wish to make an appointment so that we can talk and I can try to help you in some way?”

“I cannot wait, not at all,” muttered the stranger. “This condition that I’m in cannot go on the way it has, or else…” She stopped, pleading for something she could not express in words.

Biljana made an instant decision, realizing all the risk that it might entail.

“Come into my office, Miss,” she directed. “I am done for the day and have some time I can spend on your situation.”

The pair went into the consultation room and sat down facing each other.

Biljana never liked to be too distant from her patients when in conversation with them. She preferred not to be sitting behind her desk, but occupied a plain chair like that of the individual undergoing study or treatment.

“I can see that there is something causing you pain, but I don’t even know what to call you…”

“Stojna Vasilevska. I am new to Skopje, only moving here last year. Gevgelija is where I was born and grew up. My family passed away and I had no brothers or sisters. My teachers advised me that my future probably would be better here in the capital, so I came looking for it as a student at the University. My application was accepted in the Department of Macedonian Folklore. That is a subject that I became interested in as a child just beginning school. My grandmother and my grandfather related many old legends and myths to me, so that I was much more familiar with our folk stories and literature than others my age.

“You see, Doctor, for many years I accepted those traditional tales as true.”

“That is very interesting, Miss Vasilevska, but you have not yet told me what it is that bothers you so much that you believe that you need aid from someone in my profession.”

Stojna, frowning, leaned her head forward. “Do you know what a samodiva is?” she softly whispered.

Biljana gave an unforeseen start. “Yes, of course I do. It is a supernatural being, a sort of female spirit that haunts the forests and mountains. I remember that a samodiva is supposed to have certain magical powers. It can change itself into something else, and it possesses the ability to enchant and hypnotize men. If a samodiva falls in love with an heroic warrior, his victory in battle is assured, according to folk legend.

“Am I correct, Stojna?”

The latter cast her hazel eyes to one side. “Am I mad to believe that I am a modern-day samodiva?”

Both women looked directly into the face of the other. Neither, for a time, was able to say anything.

“I realize that was difficult for you to admit,” finally declared the stunned therapist.

“You are the only person who has ever heard this confession,” continued Stojna. “Do you think there is any way to rid myself of the fear that I feel inside myself?”

“What is it that you fear so much?” said Biljana. “It is safe here for you to tell me.”

The young woman’s hands were visibly trembling. “I am afraid that I will cause some great harm because I have the hidden powers of a samodiva. There are said to be good ones but also some that have been evil, even demonic.

“I do not know for certain which type I may actually turn out to be. What if I pose some sort of danger to people around me? What if I end up committing criminal acts?” She began to gasp for breath as her heart pounded rapidly.

Biljana spoke to calm and reassure her. “It is a good and wise thing that you have come to me for help, Stojna. But we must make a definite appointment for you to be here for a private, personal therapeutic session. I can fit you in for tomorrow if you wish.”

“I have morning classes that I must attend,” the University student explained. “And in the afternoon I am scheduled to work for my program advisor, Professor Tanev. My job is to type many of his local folklore notes that he made on field trips this last summer.”

“Are you able to be here at this afternoon hour?” asked the psychiatrist. “I will be free to devote my attention to all you have to say, my dear.”

The two agreed on the time, then Stojna departed with rising confidence that her problems were going to be handled and dealt with.

Not a wisp of fog rose from the Vardar that night. The clear sky held an infinite blanket of stars.

The Old Bazaar was loud with the noise of crowds of shoppers and visitors enjoying the evening.

It was a late hour when a celebrating reveler caught sight of a shape covered in white passing through an alley of the Bezisten covered market. Later this was remembered as a weird, ghostly form of unknown nature. What was it? What could it have been?

Several others had similar experiences later in the night.

No one had the presence of mind to label it a samodiva, an entity of the legendary past, not the present.

Zlatko Tanev was a professor who was happy when instructing and guiding his closest students. One of his favorites was Stojna Vasilevska.

The middle-aged little man had streaks of white in his coal black hair. He was an experienced field worker in the folklore of Macedonian regions.

Soon after his noon break for a meal, he talked with Stojna in his office. “Have you decided to seek research funds for visiting the Mariovo area next summer?” he began. “I am certain that the Dean’s Office will give you approval. My approval should get your request through.”

“I will be most grateful for the opportunity that provides me, sir,” she said with an intentional smile for her mentor. “It is a magnificent favor you are doing for me and I greatly appreciate it.”

He looked into her hazel eyes, taking notice of something she herself could not perceive there.

“I have the odd impression, Stojna, that there is some factor or influence that is disturbing you,” he bluntly revealed. “Perhaps it would be a relief to you if you told me what it is and let me give some aid or advice.”

She felt a sudden shock, realizing that he had deciphered her concealed fear about the subject of the samodiva.

“I worry myself about a vague sense I have about the nature of my research topic. Every night I ask myself a vital question about samidivas in general. Were they forces of good or of evil? In the most fundamental sense, did they help or harm those they became attached to? Folklore legends seem to me to point in opposite directions at different times. Some samodivas are angelic and nurturing, but there are a few known to have been demonic forces of evil violence, unfaithful and treacherous.

“I wrestle with the riddle of the genuine essence, the true character of this unworldly being so prominent in popular tradition here in the Balkans.”

Zlatko Tanev studied her face in silence before replying to what she had just confessed to him.

“Those questions that are weighing in your thoughts must become the focus of your future research, Stojna. It would be a marvelous contribution by you to solve this mystery about the samodiva in our ethnographic and literary studies. Yes, I urge you to keep in mind as you study out there in the field what needs to be given an answer.

“What is the real character and nature of a samodiva? For instance, we are aware of the figure of Ravijojla and what she did for the hero Krale Marko in folk legend and traditional fantasy. She suckled and raised him when he was abandoned as a baby. She protected and strengthened him against the Turk named Musa Kesedzhija when the two men met in battle.

“There can be no question but that Ravijojla remains the model of the goodness within a samodiva,” said the professor in a reassuring tone. “But I am certain that she does not represent all members of her species. Memory recalls to mind the samodivas named Nadanojla, Janja, Janjojka, Jerina, Jelka, and Jerisavija. Each one was different. Then there are other names, such as Andresila, Anajelija, Djurija, Kosa, Smiljana, Dragija, and Zagorka. The list of known samodivas goes on and on. It is nearly endless.” He paused for a brief moment, staring at Stojna. “There is, of course, the special type of samodiva called a narechnica. These demonic beings send evil curses upon enemies. When a child is born, three sisters who are narechnici come on the third night of life and foretell the future of the child. This type of samodiva tends to be highly vindictive and cruel. It will be your task to unearth the true essence of what a samodiva really was, Stojna. That shall be your assignment.”

She rose and departed without another word, as if caught in a trance.

It was late in the autumnal afternoon when the unofficial, irregular patient arrived to meet with her therapist, Dr. Biljana Manuseva.

“I had a busy day at the University with my classes and my secretarial work for Professor Tanev,” explained Stojna. “And we had a conference about my research plans for the coming summer.”

“What is it that you will be studying?” asked the psychiatrist as the pair sat down across from each other.

Stojna tried to grin, considering that best. “The samodiva in Macedonian folklore. What else?” she said with an unintended shrug.

Biljana paused before describing what she had in mind for treatment of this particular case.

“Have you ever heard of psychodrama? It is an active method by which a person can explore their own psyche and reach conclusions about problems and difficulties of their life. Role-playing in an imagined different identity is at the center of the method.

“It has been found to be of considerable value by psychiatrists here in Macedonia. In fact, I myself have helped organize a psychodrama association among my professional colleagues. It has become my ambition to popularize and spread the principles of spontaneous self-dramatization as a means of self-discovery. Experience with the method has made me a fanatical believer in its efficacy and successfulness. Would you be willing to attempt it with me?”

Stojna surprised the psychotherapist with her instantaneous agreement. “Yes, I have heard of psychodrama in other countries. I did not know that it exists in Macedonia.

“Of course, I am willing to take part in something so promising and exciting. How do you intend to apply it to me and my fantasy of being myself a samodiva?”

“It will take me some time to work out all of the details, Stojna. But I already know that I shall have you impersonate a samodiva as much as that is possible. The best place for such an experiment may be the Old Bazaar, where you seem to have been in the dreams you tell me about.”

“That sounds very reasonable to me,” said the patient. “When can we start?”

“I believe only a single day of preparation will be enough for both of us,” announced Biljana. “Then, we can help you dramatize what lies deep within your unconscious.”

That night there were half a dozen sightings of the strange white-clothed tall figure at locations within the Old Bazaar. Three of the witnesses were metal craftsmen and another a shoemaker working in shops along their alley-like narrow walkways. None had more than a brief glimpse of the cloudy object that might have been taken for an apparition.

Word of what they thought had passed by was transformed into rumor by the next morning.

Stojna, not enjoying much sleep, was a tired student at the two classes she attended early the following day. She had much to worry and concern her in connection with the projected psychodrama conceived by the psychotherapist she had presented herself to.

By noon, she had decided to ask for advice from Professor Zlatko Tanev.

He would certainly know what course was best for her to take in the matter.

“I have a very personal question that I wish to ask your help and advice on,” she told him a soft, gentle voice.

He invited her to enter his small office and sit down beside his desk.

“I have living in a sort of fantasy, sir, and have sought treatment by a psychiatrist,” she began, going on to describe her impression of being a samodiva wandering about the OLd Bazaar during the night. “My therapist wishes me to take part in a spontaneous psychodrama with her. It is to happen this very evening. What do you think? Is it all insanity and dangerous to my future? I need for you to tell me what I should do. What should I expect from such an exercise in imagination?”

Zlatko stayed silent till he was certain what he was going to say to his assistant.

“I am willing to talk with your doctor in order to learn more. And I volunteer to be present to see what goes on in the course of this so-called psychodrama.”

“Thank you,” breathlessly beamed Stojna. “I will be in your debt forever.”

“First, though, I must meet and talk with the psychiatrist who will be in charge.”

Zlatko arrived at the office on Samoil St. in the middle of the early autumn afternoon. He found Dr. Manuseva finished with her appointments but preparing an outline of a scenario for the scheduled psychodrama that evening.

The folklorist identified himself as the supervisory faculty advisor of Stojna Vasilevska, and gave his rationale for this visit of his.

“I am seriously worried about the health and wellbeing of my student, and do not wish that she take any unnecessary risks. So I came to see you and learn what you plan to have Stojna do tonight.”

Biljana gave a polite, pleasant smile. “I assure you, Dr. Tanev, there is a high chance of having Stojna transcend her delusion of being an unconscious samodiva through enactment of the actual role by her. She will be dressed all in white, as I have recommended to her. Going through the motions and speaking the words of a samodiva will present her with a deep revelation about who she in reality is. This is a well-established way of erasing illusions and false identities. Throughout the whole world, many practitioners rely upon psychodrama to uncover the true self buried inside.”

“She told me that you plan to accomplish this in the Old Bazaar,” murmured Zlatko. “I promised Stojna to ask you if I could be present as a witness. That promises to give her confidence.”

“Certainly,” grinned Bijana. “I have no objection to your presence. We shall meet a little before dusk on the Stone Bridge and then proceed into Old Skopje. You are welcome to accompany us.”

Weak, dimming sunlight from low in the western sky continued to illuminate the wide pedestrian surface of the Stone Bridge crossing the Vardar from Macedonia Square to the Old Bazaar.

First to arrive and watch for the other two was Stojna, meant to be the main actor in what lay ahead for that evening. She waited for the two others at the western end of the span.

The second to appear was Zlatko, who immediately stepped over beside her on the edge of the bridge.

“Good evening,” he told her. “Are you prepared for whatever may happen to you tonight?”

She gave a nod and murmured a soft yes, at the same time catching sight of Biljana stepping toward the two of them.

Stojna and Zlatko greeted the organizer of the psychodrama project. The psychiatrist at once took command of the group of three.

“Professor Tanev and I will station ourselves at the Bazaar end of the bridge and wait there for your return, Stojna. I see that you have found a white cloak that fits you well. Yes, you could be taken for a samodiva by any stranger seeing you in the shadows of night. Everything is set and ready, then. We can all proceed over to the other side.

“I want you to concentrate all of your thoughts on a single image of yourself as a samodiva. Tonight, you will be a second Ravijojla, a reborn Nadanojla. An entrancing spirit from the past of our land. One with extraordinary powers that can make for good or for evil. You must be the beneficial image, Stojna, not the one that lays on curses and destroys.

“You have to act the part of the best kind of samodiva, not its opposite.

“Do you understand what your role is going to be tonight?”

“Yes, I do, Doctor,” said the student in nearly a whisper.

“Let us, then, cross over to the Old Bazaar,” directed Biljana to her two companions.

The bridge was almost empty of pedestrians when the trio reached the opposite end.

“We shall be waiting here for you, Stojna,” said the psychotherapist. “You are the one who must decide how long you will be taking inside the streets of the Bazaar. You will know when your walking will come to its end, when your innermost self has been revealed.

“I expect you to emerge from the Old Bazaar with fresh insight into who you are, my dear. You will know and feel the truth about yourself, I am certain of that.”

Biljana took Stojna’s right hand and lightly shook it. Zlato then did the same.

Without another word, Stojna walked forth into Old Skopje.

Midnight came and went. In time, the night passed and ended.

Biljana and Zlatko stared at each other in near horror.

What if Stojna was never to return to them? What if she had discovered a buried self that displaced the troubled one they had brought here?

What if the final revelation of this psychodrama was that she found out that she was in fact an actual samodiva?

That morning Zlatko and Biljana left the Stone Bridge without Stojna, both of them shaken by the disappearance that could never be remedied or fully explained.

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